How to Build a Healthy Salad

No one ever had a linguine deficiency. But vegetables can be trickier to work into your daily rotation than pasta is—which is why we’re grateful for salads. “They’re an easy and delicious way to get at least a serving or two of veggies, which most Americans are lacking in,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., the author of The Small Change Diet. Although making a satisfying salad is kind of an art, there’s some science to it. Here’s a loose formula that can help you put together a delicious, nutritious plant-based meal in less time than it takes to boil water.

Turn over a new leaf. Start with a base of leafy greens. There’s nothing wrong with pale romaine or butter lettuce, but a dark green or red color—think spinach, kale, arugula, or radicchio—usually means more nutrients, says Gans. Fold in chopped fresh herbs to add a big hit of flavor for very few calories.

Veg out. Now it’s time to pile on the color and crunch. “The more veggies the better—if they’re raw or simply steamed,” says Gans. Limit yourself to 1 cup of roasted vegetables, which are tossed with oil and salt, and don’t count starchy veg, like peas, corn, or sweet potatoes here—these provide more carbs than light vegetables, so add them to the “smart carbs” bucket below.

Bulk up. For staying power, you’ll want your salad to have protein. Some options: 3 to 4 ounces of chicken, tuna, or steak, or two hard boiled eggs. “A half cup of beans can work as either your protein source or your carb, but since beans don’t provide as much protein as meat or poultry, you may want to consider adding a hard­ boiled egg or some nuts,” says Gans. 

Add smart carbs. Speaking of carbs, the complex kind—which contain fiber your body digests slowly—are another way to make your salad filling. Besides beans, Gans also recommends a half cup of warm or cold cooked grains, such as barley or brown rice, half a cup of starchy veg, such as peas, corn, or sweet potatoes, or 1 cup of fresh fruit. If you prefer dried cranberries or apricots, make sure they don’t have added sugar, and shrink the serving size to a quarter of a cup.  

Don’t fear fat. Avocado, cheese, and nuts and seeds not only add flavor, they also have health benefits. A serving of avocado, which is one-third of an avocado, delivers 3 grams of fiber along with antioxidants and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Nuts and seeds (a serving of which is 1 ounce), also deliver good fats, plus protein. Cheese contains protein too, and it’s an excellent source of calcium. Crumble or grate it to make a 1-ounce serving go further. A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil will help you absorb more fat-soluble nutrients and comes loaded with heart-healthy antioxidants. To avoid adding too many calories, pick one healthy fat option, not all four.

Dress nicely. You can add oil and either vinegar or freshly squeezed citrus juice separately, or combine them first to make a vinaigrette. Either way, a good ratio is two to three parts oil to one part acid. For added flavor, experiment with mustard, minced garlic or shallot, or citrus zest. If you prefer a creamy dressing, try whipping up a better-for-you granch dressing or throw an avocado into a food processor with some garlic, lemon and olive oil. 

Skip the toppings. Keep the salad healthy by avoiding bacon bits, croutons, and bottled creamy dressings—these can be a surprising source of calories, as well as sodium and added sugar. 

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